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Bumper Stickers and Opsec: Caution for Military Families

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As military family members, most of us have been admonished about operational security (opsec in military-speak) countless times.  We are told- though not nearly enough of us seem to remember- never to post anything online about our spouses’ flight times, arrival times, or destinations; or anything our spouses share with us about plans, enemy action, or their locations overseas unless we are explicitly told that it is safe.  It’s one of the few things we can do from here to directly improve our spouses’ safety.

During World War Two, service members and civilians alike were warned that “loose lips sink ships,” meaning that one small piece of information could be enough to let the enemy get the drop on an American vessel.  In the current war, loose lips are more likely to shoot down airplanes- airplanes which may be full of tired, unarmed men and women eager to return to their homes and families.  One of them could be someone you love.

Most of us are aware of how the information we share can affect the safety of troops downrange, but too often military family members do not consider the risks we take with our own “operational security” every day by sharing information we may not even know we are sharing.

A look around any city or town with a nearby military base can show an obvious example of an opsec risk most military spouses are totally unaware of.  In most military towns, yellow ribbon decals or bumper stickers proclaiming “I love my Airman / Marine / Soldier / Sailor,” or “Half my heart is in Afghanistan” abound.  It’s something you just expect to see in a military town, and I never gave those bumper stickers a second thought until my husband brought a training video home from work one evening.  My husband’s job in the Army is Information Security, and the video in question was about “low-tech hacking,” the ways anyone with bad intentions could get access to important information without needing to sneak into a digital database or even do a Google search.  One of the biggest information leaks in the video turned out to be bumper stickers.

Consider the information those items convey.  The message that you probably thought about when you put the decal or sticker on your car is something like:

  • You love your spouse and miss him/her,
  • You are proud of his/her military service, and
  • You want to show support in any way that you can.

Besides, all the other wives in town have them, right?  There may be some unintended peer pressure to show public support for your spouse and his/her unit and mission, and it seems impossible for something so common to be a serious security risk.  However, a bumper sticker proclaiming that half your heart is in Afghanistan also proclaims that:

  • There is a good chance that your spouse is deployed, so…
  • You are probably home alone (or at least the only adult in the house), and
  • That makes you a more vulnerable target for criminals.

Even bumper stickers which point less directly to a deployment- like the ones that just say that you love your service member or label you as a military spouse- still make it clear that your spouse is in the military, and with the present high operational tempo, the chances of him or her being deployed at any given moment are still high enough to make you worth noticing if a criminal is looking for a victim.  Particularly in military towns, would-be thieves, burglars, or worse are aware of these cues; that means we all need to be aware of them too.

This past year, a dear friend’s home was broken into while her husband was deployed.  We both wondered if the handful of Army wife bumper stickers on the back of her car helped make her a target, and the police acknowledged that it was a strong possibility.  Before dismissing that as another “it happened to a friend” story, consider that during Operation Desert Storm about a decade ago, similar things happened, and in at least one case a carjacker actually bragged to his victim that he had seen the yellow ribbon tied around her car’s antenna and knew that she was probably alone.

We can’t get around the necessity of having DoD decals on the front windshields of our vehicles so that we have access to our bases, but those are small, discreet, and placed somewhere less noticeable for a reason.  It is safest not to draw any more attention than absolutely necessary.  Service members and their families travelling overseas are encouraged by both the Department of Defense and the State Department to avoid wearing clothing items that identify them as members of the U.S. military; a low profile is considered good security practice.  It is also the safest option here at home.  Don’t put yourself or your family at risk by advertising yourself as a potential victim.

Remember- not all of the bad guys are downrange.  Not all of the world’s danger is in combat zones.  Be aware, be alert, and be cautious.